The Conversion of American Conservatism to White Christian Nationalism Is Now Complete
Hero worship of Victor Orbán at CPAC demonstrates what conservatives want and how they intend to get it
The days when the annual Conservative Political Action Conference was a full-throated celebration of market capitalism, deregulation and the spread of American- style liberal constitutional democracy around the world is a thing of the past. Conservatives are no longer interested in limits on state power. Or fair elections. Or protection of religious minorities, media freedom, and thriving civil society organizations. What they now care the most about is the use of unrestrained state power to bring about their idealized society based on white Christian identity. And since they know in their hearts that a majority of Americans don’t share this goal (thank you, Kansas abortion referendum), they could not care less if non-democratic means are used to bring about this result. The proof is the hero’s welcome given last week at CPAC to Hungary’s elected authoritarian leader - Victor Orbán.
Now on his fourth term as prime minister, Orbán has presided over Hungary’s decline from a free, stable democracy to an only “partly free” state (according to Freedom House). He has used the levers of state power to entrench his party, crush opposition political movements, eliminate the free press, take control of educational institutions, and delegitimize civil society organizations that fail to conform to his Christian nationalist ideology. The celebration of the authoritarian Orbán by CPAC shows that pro-freedom conservative movement of Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, and Bob Dole is no longer recognizable.
It is worth paying close attention to the rhetoric of Orbán’s CPAC speech - all of which was received with rapturous applause by the crowd.
He does not hesitate to proclaim the the purpose of politics is to advance Christian values and culture as state policy: “I am here to tell you that our values: the nation, Christian roots and family can be successful in the political battlefield… I am here to tell you how we made these values successful and mainstream in Hungary.”
It is this end state that matters, not the nature of the state or the freedom and human rights of its citizens. As Orbán told the CPAC crowd, “You also have to know how you should fight. My answer is: Play by your own rules!”
That he does.
Orbán’s twelve years in power has been an unrelenting attack on every aspect of Hungarian democracy. Soon after gaining power in the wake of the Great Recession in 2010, Orbán launched an assault on private media, successfully pressuring media corporations to relinquish ownership to the state or oligarchs aligned with his party. The main opposition newspapers were both shut down and, by 2017, 90 percent of all private media were in the hands of the state or close Orbán allies. Orbán pushed through constitutional changes that expanded the size of the highest court and then forced judges to retire at age 62 so he could pack the court with his cronies. Electoral districts were highly gerrymandered to favor his party and Orbán fired masses of civil servants so he could fully control powerful bodies that supervised the media and ran elections. Orbán used the state’s tax and spending power to advantage businesses and non-profits that advanced his interests and punish those that did not, making all key elements of Hungarian society subservient to him. After winning the latest election in April by a landslide, Orbán pushed through another constitutional change, the 10th of his reign, to give him emergency powers to siphon business profits to the state to pay for government largess to his supporters. Hungary is now the quintessential 21st century illiberal state.
Having acquired full control over every aspect of state power, Orbán unapologetically calls for using this power to advance a two-pronged Christian nationalist agenda.
The first prong is a purge of those who do not share his values. He uses Hungarian Jewish philanthropist George Soros as the evil personification of everything Orbán loathes — liberal values like tolerance, free speech and diversity and global norms and institutions that promote the rules-based liberal order to advance things like human rights and fair, transparent business practices. In classic proto-fascist style, Orbán characterizes his opponents as a shadowy, all-powerful force, claiming that Soros “has an army at his service: money, NGOs, universities, research institutions and half the bureaucracy in Brussels.” This force must be conquered in order to preserve a Hungarian Christian way of life: “Let’s be honest,” he told his CPAC flock, “the most evil things in modern history were carried out by people who hated Christianity.”
The second prong is the advancement of Christian values. Of course there is nothing wrong with a politician being guided by his values, wherever the source. But it is interesting how Orbán frames his political agenda in negative terms - the need to protect Christian values from outside enemies, rather than taking positive steps to advance these values (although he explicitly endorses tax cuts to promote procreation). Christian values are under siege, he claims, from migrants, from those challenging gender norms, and “the clash of civilizations.”
Orbán’s anti-migrant stance is directed exclusively against preventing Muslim immigration from the south - which, in his mind, would dilute the Christian nature of Hungary. This anti-Muslim bias is demonstrated by the fact that on the one hand he characterizes the threat of Muslim immigration as the “decisive and final battle of the future” but also brags that Hungary has accepted “close to 1 million refugees from the Ukraine.” Of course, this entire migration issue has been manufactured to stoke Hungarian nationalism. Net annual migration to Hungary in the five years prior to the pandemic was a mere 26,000, a statistical blip in a country of 10 million people.
Like many American conservatives, Orbán leans hard into the culture war, railing against gay marriage and addressing sexual orientation and gender identification in schools. He gleefully stokes Christian identity politics by claiming liberals want to control parenting styles and advancing policies to build “a legal wall around our children to protect them from the gender ideology that targets them.”
Finally, Orbán frames his advocacy for white Christian nationalism as a “battle being fought for western civilization.” He sees himself as allied with American conservatives against liberal god-less globalists, much as western democracies allied to defeat first Nazism and then communism. Faith will lead to victory, Orbán prophecies, because “there is no enemy that Christ has not defeated.”
Orbán’s speech was mostly about his actions in Hungary, but he gave the CPAC faithful a piece of Christian identity wisdom especially crafted for an American audience - assuring them “don’t worry, a Christian politician cannot be racist.” This is the absolution the CPAC crowd most wants, as the critique that white Christian nationalism is inherently racist cuts deep and is a most difficult claim to rebut.
Conservatives have generally responded to the charge that their policies reinforce structural racial inequity by decrying individual racists (like Floyd’s murderer) and self-proclaiming themselves to be morally good, color-blind, non-racist individuals. As such, they also believe their views on policy, law, and politics must also be credited as non-racist and immune from the unfair charge of racism.
Orbán takes this defense one step further.
He claims that society shouldn’t just take for granted conservatives’ self-proclamation of being a non-racist, but rather understand that conservatives that advocate for Christian values are inherently, by definition, good, righteous, non-racists. Why? Because good Christians know they will ultimately have to face judgement before a God that disapproves of racism and therefore will impose limitations on themselves while on earth to ensure God’s grace. Even though the ideology explicitly calls for permanent white Christian dominance of the state, the ideology is not racist, in Orbán’s mind, because it is fulfilling God’s will.
So there, in an Orbánian nutshell, is the essence of conservatism in the third decade of the 21st century. According to this modern conservatism, cultural liberalism and certain elites present an existential threat to the way of life practiced by white Christians. Preserving this way of life trumps all other considerations. The power of the state, therefore, must be marshaled to this cause, and every means necessary must be used for white Christians to control the levers of state power. If democratic institutions interfere with this project, then democratic institutions, laws, and practices must be subverted in service to a higher end - the preservation of Christian values and the maintenance of Christian power.
Thus the unthinkable — a major American political movement that is no longer committed to democracy.
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